Responding to John R. Betz’s two part “Beyond the Sublime” in Modern Theology, Kenneth Oakes attempts to present a more nuanced Barth; that is, a Barth more sympathetic toward questions surrounding the nature and grace debate.   In “The Question of Nature and Grace in Karl Barth” Oakes argues that by carefully examining Barth’s understanding of the creature as a covenant-partner there can be found within Barth’s theology “something like” a natural desire for the supernatural.

Overall, Oakes offers a fair and somewhat successful argument.  Although there is an early and late Barth, and a Barth who infamously attached Przywara analgoia entis, there still exists enough nuance and revision within Barth’s corpus to get him out from under Betz’s criticism.  Perhaps Barth does not close off humanity from the divine as much as Milbank and Betz think, and if they would only attend to what Barth means by covenant-partner they might see something else happening.  That is, they might see Barth as an ally vs. a straw man, as Oakes seems to imply.

What is interesting to me in this article is Oakes’s reading of Henri de Lubac.  Barth, according to Oakes, understands anthropology less under the general descriptors of “nature” or “human nature,” preferring to talk instead of election, covenant and Jesus Christ, and so he ultimately provides a better picture of the natural desire for the supernatural than de Lubac.  Although Oakes is careful to note the “different grounds” of de Lubac and Barth’s historical and theological situations (without attending to what these are), he concludes that “Barth is thus able to develop doctrines of nature, the supernatural, freedom, and grace in ways that de Lubac seems only to be reaching towards in his final account of nature and grace” (601).  Oakes offers a quote from de Lubac’s much later work, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, to argue that even de Lubac himself concluded that the supernatural desire in question was too removed from the “biblical alliance” (600).

In regards to the first quote, I would read in the opposite direction.  It’s Barth, not de Lubac, who is still reaching toward a final account of nature and grace.  Aside from de Lubac having the historical legacy on his side, there is way more to de Lubac’s own corpus than Oakes allows for in his argument.  After all, it is de Lubac who can speak of deified humanity, the essential role ecclesiology plays in understanding humanity’s vocation, mysticism and the active engagement with philosophy.

Oakes is incorrect to read only de Lubac’s self-reflections in A Brief Catechesis to sum up the historical debates over the supernatural.  Why, for instance, didn’t Oakes refer to de Lubac’s self-reflections on the political situation of his writings?  For example, Christian Resistance to Anti-Semitism.  Within these pages Oakes would find what he sees in Barth: a theologian actively committed to the narrative of scripture vs. the a theologian caught within scholastic or mere academic debates.

Some other thoughts:

  • Oakes talks about Barth’s understanding of humanity’s general openness to the divine and seems to imply that there is then continuity with de Lubac.  However, the picture Oakes offers of Barth strikes me as Rahnerian.  De Lubac and von Balthasar are not interested in a mere a vorgriff of Being or a supernatural existential.  Is Oakes simply collapsing Rahner and de Lubac?
  • Oakes convincingly shows that there is a sense of “desire” within Barth’s thought.  However, does Barth’s use of the term “desire” really get to the heart of the desiderium naturale?
  • What about Barth’s alleged Hegelianism?  Or even Barth’s occasionalism?  This is not to pigeonhole Barth again, but the fact remains that these are strong currents in his thought that severely complicate a clean and concise Barth in terms of discussing the natural desire for the supernatural.